Alchemy: An Overview
ALCHEMY: AN OVERVIEW
The vocable alchemia (or some alternate form such as ars chemica ) appears in the West from the twelfth century onward in reference to the medieval quest for a means of transmuting base metals into gold, for a universal cure, and for the "elixir of immortality." The origin of the root chem is not yet satisfactorily explained. In Chinese, Indian, and Greek texts alchemy is referred to as "the Art," or by terms indicating radical and beneficial change, for example, transmutation. Until quite recently, historians of science have studied alchemy as a protochemistry, that is, an embryonic science. Indeed, like the early chemist, the practitioner of "the Art" made use of a laboratory and of certain specific instruments; more important, alchemists were the authors of a number of discoveries that later played roles in the development of the science of chemistry. To quote only a few examples: the isolation of mercury around 300 bce; the discovery of aqua vitae (alcohol) and of the mineral acids, both before the thirteenth century; the preparation of vitriol and the alums.
But the methods, the ideology, and the goals of the early chemists did not prolong the alchemical heritage. The alchemists were not interested—or only subsidiarily—in the scientific study of nature. Where the early Greek mind applies itself to science it evinces an extraordinary sense of observation and argument. Yet the Greek alchemists show an inexplicable lack of interest in the physico-chemical phenomena of their work. To cite a single example, no one who has ever used sulfur could fail to observe "the curious phenomena which attend its fusion and the subsequent heating of the liquid. Now, while sulphur is mentioned hundreds of times [in Greek alchemical texts], there is no allusion to any of its characteristic properties except its action on metals" (Sherwood Taylor, quoted in Eliade, 1978, p. 147). As we shall see presently, the alchemist's quest was not scientific but spiritual.
Esoteric Traditions and the Importance of Secrecy
In every culture where alchemy has flourished, it has always been intimately related to an esoteric or "mystical" tradition: in China to Taoism, in India to Yoga and Tantrism, in Hellenistic Egypt to gnōsis, in Islamic countries to Hermetic and esoteric mystical schools, in the Western Middle Ages and Renaissance to Hermetism, Christian and sectarian mysticism, and Qabbalah. In brief, all alchemists have proclaimed their art to be an esoteric technique pursuing a goal similar or comparable to that of the major esoteric and "mystical" traditions.
For this reason, great emphasis is placed by the alchemist on secrecy, that is, the esoteric transmission of alchemical doctrines and techniques. The oldest Hellenistic text, Physikē kai mystikē (probably written around 200 bce), relates how this book was discovered hidden in a column of an Egyptian temple. In the prologue to one of the classical Indian alchemical treatises, Rasārnava, the Goddess asks Śiva for the secret of becoming a jīvanmuleta, that is, one "liberated in life." Śiva tells her that this secret is seldom known, even among the gods. Again, the importance of secrecy is emphasized by the most famous Chinese alchemist, Ko Hung (260–340 ce), who stated that "secrecy is thrown over the efficacious recipes.… The substances referred to are commonplaces which nevertheless cannot be identified without knowledge of the code concerned" (Pao-pʿru-tzu, chap. 16). The deliberate incomprehensibility of alchemical texts for the noninitiate becomes almost a cliché in Western post-Renaissance alchemical literature. An author quoted by the fifteenth-century Rosarium philosophorum declares that "only he who knows how to make the Philosophers' Stone understands the words which relate to it." And the Rosarium warns the reader that these questions must be transmitted "mystically," just as poetry uses fables and parables. In short, we are confronted with a secret language. According to some authorities, there was even an oath not to divulge the secret in books (texts quoted in Eliade, 1978, p. 164).
The stages of the alchemical opus constitute an initiation, a series of specific experiences aimed at the radical transformation of the human condition. But the successful initiate cannot adequately express his new mode of being in a profane language. He is compelled to use a "secret language." Of course, secrecy was a general rule with almost all techniques and sciences in their early stages—from pottery, mining, and metallurgy to medicine and mathematics. The secret transmission of methods, tools, and recipes is abundantly documented in China and in India, as well as in the ancient Near East and Greece. Even so late an author as Galen warns one of his disciples that the medical knowledge that he communicates must be received as an aspirant receives the teletē (initiation) in the Eleusinian mysteries. As a matter of fact, being introduced into the secrets of a craft, of a technique, or of a science was tantamount to undergoing an initiation.
It is significant that the injunction to secrecy and occultation is not abolished by the successful accomplishment of the alchemical work. According to Ko Hung, the adepts who obtain the elixir and become "immortals" (hsien ) continue to wander on earth, but they conceal their condition, that is, their immortality, and are recognized as such only by a few fellow alchemists. Likewise, in India there is a vast literature, both in Sanskrit and in the vernaculars, in relation to certain famous siddhis, yogin-alchemists who live for centuries but who seldom disclose their identity. One encounters the same belief in central and western Europe: certain Hermetists and alchemists (such as Nicolas Flamel and his wife, Pernelle) were reputed to have lived indefinitely without being recognized by their contemporaries. In the seventeenth century a similar legend circulated about the Rosicrucians and, in the following century, on a more popular level, in relation to the mysterious Comte de Saint-Germain.
Origins of Alchemy
The objects of the alchemical quest—namely, health and longevity, transmutation of base metals into gold, production of the elixir of immortality—have a long prehistory in the East as well as in the West. Significantly, this prehistory reveals a specific mythico-religious structure. Innumerable myths, for instance, tell of a spring, a tree, a plant, or some other substance capable of bestowing longevity, rejuvenation, or even immortality. Now, in all alchemical traditions, but particularly in Chinese alchemy, specific plants and fruits play an important role in the art of prolonging life and recovering perennial youth.
But the central aim of the alchemist was the transformation of ordinary metals into gold. This "noble" metal was imbued with sacrality. According to the Egyptians, the flesh of gods and of pharaohs was made of gold. In ancient India, a text from the eighth century bce (Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 126.96.36.199) proclaims that "gold is immortality." Interpreting alchemy as a mere technique for "turning base metals into precious ones," that is, for imitating gold, H. H. Dubs has suggested that the technique originated during the fourth century bce in China, where the test for gold (which had been practiced in Mesopotamia since the fourteenth century bce) was unknown. This hypothesis has been rejected, however, by most scholars. According to Nathan Sivin, the belief in physical immortality is documented in China by the eighth century bce, but not until the fourth century was immortality considered attainable through the use of drugs and other techniques, and "the transformation of cinnabar into gold is not spoken of as possible, according to extant sources, before 133 bc " (Sivin, 1968, p. 25).
Mining, Metallurgy, and Alchemy
Even if the historical beginnings of alchemy are as yet obscure, parallels between certain alchemical beliefs and rituals and those of early miners and metallurgists are clear. Indeed, all these techniques reflect the idea that man can influence the temporal flux. Mineral substances, hidden in the womb of Mother Earth, shared in the sacredness attached to the goddess. Very early we are confronted with the idea that ores "grow" in the belly of the earth after the manner of embryos. Metallurgy thus takes on the character of obstetrics. The miner and metalworker intervene in the unfolding of subterranean embryology: they accelerate the rhythm of the growth of ores; they collaborate in the work of nature and assist it in giving birth more rapidly. In a word, man, with his various techniques, gradually takes the place of time: his labors replace the work of time.
With the help of fire, metalworkers transform the ores (the "embryos") into metals (the "adults"). The underlying belief is that, given enough time, the ores would have become "pure" metals in the womb of Mother Earth. Further, the "pure" metals would have become gold if they had been allowed to "grow" undisturbed for a few more thousand years. Such beliefs are well known in many traditional societies. As early as the second century bce, Chinese alchemists declared that the "baser" minerals develop after many years into "nobler" minerals, and finally become silver or gold. Similar beliefs are shared by a number of Southeast Asian populations. For instance, the Annamites were convinced that the gold found in mines is formed slowly in situ over the course of centuries, and that if one had probed the earth long ago, one would have discovered bronze in the place where gold is found today.
These beliefs survived in western Europe until the industrial revolution. In the seventeenth century one Western alchemist wrote:
If there were no exterior obstacles to the execution of her designs, Nature would always complete what she wishes to produce.… That is why we have to look upon the birth of imperfect metals as we would on abortions and freaks which come about only because Nature has been, as it were, misdirected or because she has encountered some fettering resistance or certain obstacles which prevent her from behaving in her accustomed way.… Hence although she wishes to produce only one metal, she finds herself constrained to create several. Gold and only gold is the child of her desires. Gold is her legitimate son because only gold is a genuine production of her efforts. (quoted in Eliade, 1978, p. 50)
The Alchemist Completes the Work of Nature
The transmutation of base metals into gold is tantamount to a miraculously rapid maturation. As Simone da Colonia put it: "This Art teaches us to make a remedy called the Elixir, which, being poured on imperfect metals, perfects them completely, and it is for this reason that it was invented" (quoted in Eliade, 1978, p. 166). The same idea is clearly expounded by Ben Jonson in his play The Alchemist (1610). One character says that "lead and other metals … would be gold if they had time," and another adds, "And that our Art doth further."
Moreover, the elixir is said to be capable of accelerating the temporal rhythm of all organisms and thus of quickening their growth. In a text erroneously attributed to Ramón Lull, one can read that "in Spring, by its great and marvelous heat, the Stone brings life to the plants: if thou dissolve the equivalent of a grain of salt in water, taking from this water enough to fill a nutshell, and then if thou water with it a vinestock, thy vinestock will bring forth ripe grapes in May" (quoted in Ganzenmüller, 1940, p. 159). Furthermore, Chinese as well as Islamic and Western alchemists exalted the elixir for its universal therapeutic virtues: it was said to cure all maladies, to restore youth to the old, and to prolong life by several centuries.
Alchemy and Mastery of Time
Thus it seems that the central secret of "the Art" is related to the alchemist's mastery of cosmic and human time. The early miners and metallurgists thought that, with the help of fire, they could speed up the growth of ores. The alchemists were more ambitious: they thought they could "heal" base metals and accelerate their "maturation," thereby transmuting them into nobler metals and finally into gold. But the alchemists went even further: their elixir was reputed to heal and to rejuvenate men as well, indefinitely prolonging their lives. In the alchemist's eyes, man is creative : he redeems nature, masters time; in sum, he perfects God's creation. The myth of alchemy is an optimistic myth; it constitutes, as it were, a "natural escha-tology."
It is certainly this conception of man, as an imaginative and inexhaustibly creative being, that explains the survival of the alchemist's ideals in nineteenth-century ideology. Of course, these ideals were radically secularized in that period. Moreover, the fact that they had survived was not immediately evident at the moment when alchemy itself disappeared. Yet the triumph of experimental science did not abolish the dreams and ideals of the alchemist; on the contrary, the new ideology of the nineteenth century crystallized around the myth of infinite progress. Boosted by the development of the experimental sciences and the progress of industrialization, this ideology took up and carried forward—radical secularization notwithstanding—the millenarian dream of the alchemist. The myth of the perfection and redemption of nature has survived in camouflaged form in the Promethean program of industrialized societies, whose aim is the transformation of nature, and especially the transmutation of matter into energy. It was also in the nineteenth century that man succeeded in supplanting time. His desire to accelerate the natural tempo of organic and inorganic beings now began to be realized, as organic chemists demonstrated the possibility of accelerating and even eliminating time by preparing in laboratories and factories substances that would have taken nature thousands of years to produce. With what he recognizes as most essential in himself—his applied intelligence and his capacity for work—modern man takes upon himself the function of temporal duration; in other words, he takes on the role of time.
For the earliest relations between the rituals and mythologies of mining, metallurgy, and alchemy, see my book The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1978); critical bibliographies are given therein. For a cultural history of mining, see T. A. Rickard's Man and Metals: A History of Mining in Relation to the Development of Civilizations, 2 vols. (New York, 1932). For the history of metallurgy, see R. J. Forbes's Metallurgy in Antiquity: A Notebook for Archaeologists and Technologists (Leiden, 1950) and Leslie Aitchison's A History of Metals, 2 vols. (London, 1960).
The origin and development of alchemy are presented from different perspectives by several authors: by Edmund von Lippmann in a three-volume work, Entstehung und Ausbreitung der Alchemie (Berlin, 1919–1954), of which volume 3 is indispensable; by John Reed in Through Alchemy to Chemistry (London, 1957); by Eric John Holmyard in Alchemy (Baltimore, 1957); and by Robert P. Multhauf in The Origins of Chemistry (London, 1966). On origins and development, see also three articles by Allan G. Debus: "The Significance of the History of Early Chemistry," Cahiers d'histoire mondiale 9 (1965): 39–58; "Alchemy and the Historian of Science," History of Science 6 (1967): 128–138; and "The Chemical Philosophers: Chemical Medicine from Paracelsus to van Helmont," History of Science 12 (1974): 235–259.
The works cited in this article on specific alchemical traditions are Wilhelm Ganzenmüller's Die Alchemie im Mittelalter (Paderborn, West Germany, 1938), translated into French as L'alchimie au Moyen-Âge (Paris, 1940), and Nathan Sivin's Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies (Cambridge, Mass., 1968).
Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter. The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thought. New York, 1991.
Heinrich, Clark. Strange Fruit: Alchemy, Religion, and Magical Foods: A Speculative History. London, 1995.
Marshall, Peter H. The Philosopher's Stone: A Quest for the Secrets of Alchemy. London, 2001.
Newman, William R. Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. Chicago, Ill., 2004.
Newman, William R., and Lawrence M. Principe. Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry. Chicago, Ill., 2002.
Szulakowski, Urszula. The Alchemy of Light: Geometry and Optics in Late Renaissance Alchemical Illustration. Boston, 2000.
Von Martels, Z. R. W. M., ed. Alchemy Revisited: Proceedings of the International Conference on the History of Alchemy at the University of Gronigen, 17–19 April, 1989. New York, 1990.
Mircea Eliade (1987)